Marriage Story: Overlooked

Marriage Story (2019)
Directed and written by Noah Baumbach
Netflix, 137 minutes, R (for no good reason!)
★★★ ½

Marriage Story is moving, sharply written, and well-acted by its principals: Scarlett Johannson and Adam Driver. If only the secondary cast had been up to snuff, this film would have made waves instead of a puddle.

The title is Marriage Story, but it’s really about divorce. That’s a topic director and writer Noah Baumbach has explored previously in The Squid and the Whale (2005), which was based in part on his parents’ divorce, and the current film echoes his own from actress Jennifer Jason Leigh (who gave the script a thumb’s up). We come in on what looks to be a lovefest, with Nicole (Johannson) and Charlie Barber (Driver) scribbling all the things they love and admire about the other. Except, it’s for a mediator.

The impending divorce is Nicole’s idea and (on the surface) it boils down to a single factor: New York or LA? Charlie is a hot theatre director in New York City. He has featured Nicole in his plays for over a decade, which resurrected her career. Outside of New York, most people remember her for a teenager role in which she bared her breasts in a trashy Porky’s-like movie. That was then, but when Nicole is offered a TV role, she yearns to be independent, leave New York, and move to Los Angeles, where her mother and sister live. Charlie’s work is in New York, though, and he has a Woody Allen-like devotion to the city. The two initially agree to part ways without lawyers, but the complicator is their adorable young son Henry. As you can imagine, this is a deal-breaker.

Even though Charlie loves Nicole’s mom and sister at least as much as she does, he is not an LA kind of guy. He flies west to see Henry, Nicole, and her family only to learn that Nicole has hired high-powered divorce lawyer Nora Fanshaw (Laura Dern). He too needs to lawyer-up, or he might lose everything, including all custodial rights over Henry. (Forget the fact that he has stronger parenting skills than Nicole!) The proverbial fur flies and issues lingering below the surface emerge. Of course, the fastest route to losing a lot of things, including huge amounts of money, is to entrust the future to lawyers who tell you to fight or you’ll lose everything.

Johannson and Driver are superb, as you might expect of two of the finest actors of their generation. Johannson is, at one moment, a bribing mommy and the next, an ambitious ice queen. In a nice role reversal, Driver is the more vulnerable partner who cries easily, though he too can be driven over the edge. In short, what we have is an awkward divorce in which neither Nicole nor Charlie can be genuine, as they are cast into roles they must play before an avoidable tragedy burns itself out.  Baumbach’s dialogue is tight and shifts when needs be from tender to acidic. It’s mostly believable, though it must be said that New York theatre comes across as far weightier and “important” than Hollywood. It’s intellectual discussions and mixed drinks in dark-paneled bars versus poseurs and cocaine in the sunshine. Even the music is different: Sondheim versus a family cabaret.

Alas, misfired direction on Baumbach’s part mars the film. I’m a Laura Dern fan, but she’s pretty bad in this movie. She plays a high-priced divorce lawyer like a touchy-feely therapist with sharks’ teeth. We first see her in her office wearing a pair of Louboutin red heels, which she kicks off to climb onto a leather sofa to hug Nicole. This, mind you, during her initial consultation. This is unethical behavior; imagine the uproar if this had a been a male lawyer! Dern overacts throughout the film and when she goes up against Jay Martin (Ray Liotta) her performance wilts in comparison to Liotta’s surgical approach.

Nicole’s mother Sandra is played by Julie Hagerty, and Merritt Wever is sister Cassie.  Both are dreadful. Sandra is allegedly a former TV star, though she seems more like an Earth Mother from the food coop who happens to be living in a fancy home. Wever is a neurotic bundle of nerves for most of her screen time. Wallace Shawn makes a cameo as part of Charlie’s theatre company and he too is often over the top. On a sadder note, Alan Alda plays Bert Spitz, Charlie’s first lawyer. His Parkinson’s is very much on display, even to the point where he grabs his shaking right arm and pulls it down from the camera angle.

Still, the script, Johannson, and Driver are reasons aplenty to see Marriage Story. Inexplicably, though critics generally loved this film, it did nothing at the box office and returned less than 20 percent of its $18 million production costs. The film, like Charlie and Nicole, deserved a better fate.

Rob Weir

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